Chinampas: What they are, how they work, and why they matter today more than ever.

One of today's most innovative forms of sustainable farming is old. Like, really, really old. Aztec Empire old: chinampas.

With all the focus we put on technology, it's easy to believe that sustainability is a new-age idea. Scientists are frantically trying to develop something to save the world from our recent mistakes — the pollution of the Industrial Revolution, spills from any number of oil companies, and the human-made climate change that scientists only began to notice in the late 1900s.

In reality, one of the most innovative farming solutions has been here all along. Sustainable farming isn't a 20th century invention. It's something the Aztecs started doing centuries ago called chinampas.


The Aztecs used stunning floating gardens — otherwise known as chinampas — to grow their crops without harming the environment.

Photo by Karl Weule/Wikimedia Commons.

Chinampas were created by piling mud and decaying plants into small stationary islands on top of which the farmers would sow maize, beans, chilies, squash, tomatoes, and greens. Farmers would also grow the colorful flowers used in a variety of their ceremonies. To stabilize the islands, sturdy reeds were bound together and used to both border each chinampa and to help anchor it to the ground.

The dredging of the mud cleared the way for canals and naturally reinvigorated the nutrients in the soil that fed their crops. The resulting system of canals and gardens created a habitat for fish and birds, which helped maintain the health of the ecosystem and also provided additional sources of food.

The chinampas didn't harm the environment — they enhanced it.

"Floating Gardens" drawing by Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr.

This wasn't just a feat of incredible gardening — chinapas took a lot of complicated work to create.

Chinampas are sustainable, but they aren't self-maintained. Farmers had to construct a series of systems and processes to keep their people and the land healthy. Drainage systems were added to avoid flooding during the rainy season.

To fertilize the gardens, they developed a waste system to collect human excrement from the cities and spread it over their crops. The result was more than just flourishing crops: The chinampas actually helped prevent waste from entering and poisoning the water supply.

The fact that Aztecs found a way to turn unworkable swampland into a flourishing garden is an accomplishment in itself. Even more impressive is the amount of organized manpower, planning, and utilization of their resources required to make their idea a reality.

A chinampa in Mexico City. Photo by Emmanuel Eslava/Wikimedia Commons.

So don't call it a comeback. Chinampas have been here for years.

They're still in place around Mexico City, where they're both a tourist attraction and a working farm maintained by the locals. Other cities and countries have picked up on the chinampa idea, too — you can find them on the Baltimore waterfront and even cleaning up New York's polluted Gowanus Canal.

Some ecological companies have even taken elements of the Aztecs' methods and used it to create new technology that resembles the ancient version of the floating gardens. The sustainability benefits still appeal to modern gardeners — especially since chinampas can grow plants, clean and conserve water, and don't require large swaths of land.

A modern iteration of the Aztecs' original chinampa method. Photo by EZGrow Garden.

The success of chinampas is a testament to the fact that sometimes the most innovative solutions don't involve looking to the future, but to the past.

The incredible efficiency of this indigenous gardening method serves as a reminder that sustainability doesn't have to be expensive or rely on the most advanced technology available to us today.

Sometimes, the best thing to do is to look backward — toward the people who figured out how to do it right the first time.

Most Shared
Rice University

A plaque marking the death of a glacier comes with a haunting message to future generations.

The former Okjökull glacier in western Iceland is the first to lose its status as a glacier due to climate change. Known now as simply "Ok," the once sprawling ice sheet has melted to about seven percent of what it was a century ago and was declared no longer a glacier in 2014.

Scientists predict that in the next 200 years, if the climate crisis is not mitigated, the rest of Iceland's 400 glaciers will meet the same fate.

Next month, the land that Ok once covered will be marked with a memorial plaque. Researchers from Rice University in Houston, Texas, Icelandic author Andri Snær Magnason, and geologist Oddur Sigurðsson—who first declared the glacier's lost status—will unveil the plaque in a public ceremony on August 18.

The plaque's text begins, "A letter to the future," then reads:

Keep Reading Show less
Planet
Photo by Raul Varzar on Unsplash

A quarter of domestic cats have had their claws removed. Even though it might make the owners lives a little easier, the procedure can be incredibly painful for the animals and has been described as "barbaric."

Most of Europe and Canada have banned cat declawing (onychectomy), as well as several U.S. cities, but New York just became the first state to do so. Now, any vet who declaws a cat in the there will face a fine of $1,000, unless the procedure is medically necessary.

"Declawing is a cruel and painful procedure that can create physical and behavioral problems for helpless animals, and today it stops," New York GovernorAndrew Cuomo saidin a statement, per USA Today.

Some people get their cat declawed to stop their furniture and flesh from being destroyed. However, declawing a cat isn't the best way to stop a cat from scratching. In fact, it's probably the worst. "If a person has an issue with a cat scratching, well, first of all, I'd advise them don't get a cat because that is the very nature of a cat. But, secondly, there are ways to change cats' behavior. Get scratching posts. There are vinyl sheathes that could be placed on the nails," Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal said. Rosenthal sponsored the bill and is a cat owner, herself. "[T]here's many ways to address that behavior." None of the ways you address the problem should include taking it's claws off.

Keep Reading Show less
Cities
Alie Ward

Your dinner plate shouldn't shame you for eating off of it. But that's exactly what a set being sold at Macy's did.

The retailer has since removed the dinnerware from their concept shop, Story, after facing social media backlash for the "toxic message" they were sending.

The plates, made by Pourtions, have circles on them to indicate what a proper portion should look like, along with "helpful — and hilarious — visual cues" to keep people from "overindulging."

There are serval different styles, with one version labeling the largest portion as "mom jeans," the medium portion as "favorite jeans," and the smallest portion as "skinny jeans."

Keep Reading Show less
Well Being

In today's installment of the perils of being a woman, a 21-year-old woman shared her experience being "slut-shamed" by her nurse practitioner during a visit to urgent care for an STD check.

The woman recently had sex with someone she had only just met, and it was her first time hooking up with someone she had not "developed deep connections with."

Keep Reading Show less
Well Being